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Thursday, February 11, 2010
Thrilling Duels set stage for Daytona 500

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Two Gatorade Duels, two thrilling, trading-paint finishes. Lots of passing. Tons of action. Restrictor-plate racing the way it was meant to be.

The Bud Shootout last weekend, the first racing test on NASCAR's rule changes for plate racing, wasn't so hot at times. Too many crashed cars and a finish under caution.

When the qualifying races started Thursday, lots of doubts remained about whether these changes -- a bigger plate opening for more horsepower and looser enforcement on bump-drafting -- were the right thing to do.

You better believe it.

"If anyone says racing at Daytona isn't the best it's ever been, they don't know racing," Michael Waltrip said, seconds after learning he had a spot in Sunday's Daytona 500.

Jimmie Johnson edged Kevin Harvick for the victory in the first race, winning by five-thousandths of a second. Johnson did it in his backup car. OK, there are no backup cars at Hendrick Motorsports -- Great Car 1 and Great Car 2.

And Kasey Kahne took advantage of a great Ford engine, a new experience for Kahne, to power past Tony Stewart at the line in the second race, winning it by 14-thousandths of a second.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson winning the first Gatorade Duel in a backup car was among the feel-good moments Thursday at Daytona.

Two breathtaking finishes, and possibly a good omen for Sunday.

"I hope this says we can win the Daytona 500," Johnson said. "I haven't won a plate race in the new [Car of Tomorrow-style] car. I think we sent a message today."

Kahne may have sent a bigger message in his first victory at Daytona. He was using the new Ford engine, proving this new merger of Richard Petty Motorsports and Yates Racing may pay dividends for the RPM guys.

"I hope it shows what we can do," Kahne said. "It definitely gives us confidence going into Sunday."

These races should give the fans confidence that things are looking up for the Daytona 500. NASCAR didn't even need its new green-white-checkered rule of continuing overtime if the first attempt failed.

No OT was required to make this a lively party. And the dramatic racing was only half the story.

For the guys battling up front, Thursday still is just a practice run to see what they have for Sunday. They were in the show no mattered what happened.

The emotions of the day were elsewhere, further back in the field. No one displayed it better than the nicest Italian gentleman you could ever meet, crying tears of joy as he climbed out of his car.

This was not practice for Max Papis. It was get in or go home. Finishing 15th in the first qualifier never felt better. Papis will race in the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career.

"A guy from an 800-person village in the north of Italy has a chance to run in the Daytona 500," Papis said. "Can you believe that? I don't want to be known anymore as the Italian road-course racer. I want to be Mad Max the Italian NASCAR racer."

Mark Martin, who starts on the pole Sunday, was the first man to congratulate Papis on pit road.

The stars of the sport went to Victory Lane on Thursday, but the drama comes from guys like Papis who are fighting for their lives. For some, it's enormous joy. For others, it's devastating disappointment.

Todd Bodine, who was trying to get Kirk Shelmerdine's car in the show, finished two spots below Papis, a tiny difference on the track but a world of difference in meaning. It wasn't enough to earn a spot.

But for Michael McDowell, Thursday was one of the best days of his life. McDowell is known to most fans as the guy who walked away from a terrifying crash during qualifying at Texas.

Maybe some better memories are coming after he made the 500 with his 14th-place finish in the first Duel.

"With six laps to go, we lost the draft," McDowell said. "I had given up. But as soon as that caution came out, I knew we were going to make the Daytona 500. I don't know why, I just knew. It was that gut feeling you get."

McDowell was 50th on the Pole Day speed chart, which would have put his No. 55 Toyota on the hauler anywhere else, but not Daytona. He had one last chance to make the race.

"It's a humbling sport for sure," McDowell said. "Until you get here, you don't realize how hard it is. For me, it's one race at a time. One day I hope to be one of those guys up front competing for wins. But for now, I have something to prove to justify my existence in this sport."

Mike Bliss probably feels that he proved that long ago, but just being an old pro wasn't going to get him in the Daytona 500. He had to do that in a backup car on Tommy Baldwin's underfunded team.

Bliss finished 15th in the second race, good enough to make the show. And he believes the new rules helped him do it.

"I enjoy the way it is now," Bliss said. "I like sliding around [on the track]. And now having some brass balls means a lot, too."

Now that's really old-school.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.